MILWAUKEE — Dem U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said Friday the U.S. should pull its troops out of Afghanistan, while her GOP rival Leah Vukmir said the mission there and in other areas of the Middle East should continue until safe havens for terrorists are rooted out.
Friday’s debate at Marquette University Law School, the third and final featuring the two before the Nov. 6 election, was the first to significantly address international affairs.
Vukmir said Afghanistan was “not an optional war” following the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks. She added the U.S. must root out safe havens for terrorists in Afghanistan and countries like Syria and then allow regional powers to come in and stabilize the situation.
“It was not an optional war,” Vukmir said of Afghanistan. “We have a reason to be there.”
Baldwin said while she backed military action after 9/11, she voted for a “clear mission” to go after the architects of the attack and those who offered terrorists safe haven.
“This is not year two of the war in Afghanistan, this is the beginning of year 18,” Baldwin said. “And I cannot imagine anything that we’re going to be do differently in year 18 that justifies keeping our troops there.”
After Baldwin said she wanted to see the troops return, Vukmir interrupted, asking her if she wanted to do so even while the U.S. is still training Afghan troops, which she called “irresponsible.”
“I have a son in the military,” Vukmir said. “Maybe if you don’t have a child in the military you don’t look at it the same way as I do.”
Host Mike Gousha asked Baldwin to continue, who after a long sigh, said that she “has great respect for those who serve our nation.”
“I also have great respect for the need to have a clear mission and stick to that,” she said. “And I think our troops in Afghanistan should come home.”
And while they disagreed on most issues they were asked about, both called for the Saudi government to face consequences for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident. The Saudi government acknowledged Friday Khashoggi was killed by Saudi operatives during a fight while Khashoggi visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain marriage-related documents.
Baldwin said the U.S. should stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, not only for the latest incident, but because of its involvement in a proxy war in Yemen.
Vukmir said she also supported sanctions against Saudi Arabia, but that she trusts President Trump to come up with an appropriate response.
As in other debates, the two engaged in a heated exchange over Baldwin’s handling of opioid overprescription at the Tomah VA that led to a Marine veteran’s death.
Vukmir said Baldwin sat on a report on the issue for eight months before taking action. Citing an ethics complaint related to the issue, Vukmir accused Baldwin of trying to pay hush money to one of the senator’s employees about how it was handled.
Baldwin said Vukmir was lying and the complaint “was dismissed without merit.”
The two also accused each other of politicizing the issue.
Vukmir noted Baldwin sent a letter to all registered voters about the Tomah VA.
“That’s not political?” Vukmir said.
Baldwin said Vukmir “should be ashamed of using the death of a Marine veteran for her own political gain. This is outrageous to me.”
Baldwin said when she became aware of the problem, she worked with the Marine’s family and widow to pass a bill changing how the VA prescribes opioids.
While the two had some tense moments, with Vukmir interrupting Baldwin several times and both accusing each other of lying, a moment of levity came when Baldwin, who’d been suffering from a cough and sniffles throughout the debate, asked people to “excuse my pre-existing condition.”
As the audience chuckled, Vukmir, a registered nurse, replied to more laughs, “Do you need a nurse? … I’m here for you.”
On other issues:
Health care: Vukmir demanded to know how Baldwin would pay for a “Medicare-for-all” plan that she called a government takeover of health care.
Meanwhile, Baldwin cast Vukmir as the deciding vote on the Affordable Care Act, saying its repeal would undercut protections for those with pre-existing conditions.
“Leah Vukmir seems to be more concerned with the bottom line of insurance companies than her constituents, and that is not acceptable,” Baldwin said.
Gousha pressed Baldwin on how she would pay for the Medicare-for-all plan. She answered President Trump wouldn’t sign such a plan during the rest of his term and she’s open to other ideas, as well, as part of a discussion on the future of health care. But she didn’t offer specifics on how to fund the plan, which some have pegged at $32.6 trillion over a decade.
Vukmir complained the media have not focused more on the issue.
“I can’t believe that Sen. Baldwin literally wants to throw grandma off the cliff,” Vukmir said.
Student loan debt: Vukmir argued government should get out of the student loan business.
She said government-backed loans have created an incentive for universities to increase tuition and contrasted that with GOP efforts in Wisconsin to freeze tuition at the UW System for in-state undergrads since 2013.
“Sen. Baldwin always believes that government has a solution,” Vukmir said. “The federal government is not and should not be in the student loan business.”
Baldwin countered she believes those with student loan debt should be able to refinance just like home owners can with a mortgage. She suggested more hasn’t been done on the issue because Wall Street interests have stood in the way.
“We can’t have leaders who are beholden to the special interests,” Baldwin said.
That drew a rebuke from Vukmir, who said all she hears from Baldwin is “special interests,” countering the Dem lawmaker had received millions from special interest and 17 former aides have gone on to become lobbyists who encouraged her to sign onto 127 bills.
Vukmir also defended her membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council, saying the conservative group believes in government closest to the people makes the best decisions.
“To say I’m in the back pocket of special interests, that’s laughable,” Vukmir said, adding Baldwin hadn’t returned donations from groups that supported ALEC.
Baldwin called the charge ironic, noting $14 million had been spent by super PACs against her, starting before she even had an opponent.
“They want a senator who will do their bidding,” Baldwin said.
Vukmir interrupted Baldwin to say that money was largely spent for her primary opponent, Kevin Nicholson.